Laws shouldn’t shrink with news staff

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By Richard Lodge

I have some good news and I have some bad news

The good news is that this week the Worcester District Attorney’s Office ruled that the Milford (Mass.) Board of Selectmen violated the Open Meeting Law in July by meeting privately with a Colorado real estate developer who wanted to talk about his proposal to locate a casino along I-495 in the Milford area. Selectmen had closed the doors for an executive session under the exemption that allows town boards “to consider the purchase, exchange, lease or value of real property if an open discussion may have a detrimental effect on the negotiating position of the governmental body with a person, firm or corporation.”

The key point here, and the one upon which the Milford Daily News (a GateHouse Media newspaper, along with the MetroWest Daily News) filed the complaint with the Worcester DA, is that the exemption is meant to let town boards discuss their strategy in possible real estate deals in private, but NOT with the party with whom they might eventually be negotiating. In the Milford case, the developer wanted to talk about his proposal for a casino, which might include the purchase of a large tract of town-owned land, but no plans are on the table, no negotiating has started and the developer and board are months, if not years away from talking turkey.

Our belief at the newspaper was that selectmen wanted to close the doors so the developer wouldn’t have to reveal any details about exactly what stretch of I-495 might be involved and what parcels of land – whether private property or town-owned land – might be eyed for a casino.

The DA investigated and this week concluded the selectmen violated “both the letter and the spirit” of the law by closing out the public and the press. The DA’s office, represented by Assistant District Attorney David A. Tiberii, ordered the town to release minutes of the executive session, which it did promptly.Here’s a link to our story on this ruling, with an additional link there to a PDF of the document.

So what’s the bad news? I believe that the staffing cuts and added workload at media companies today will make many of us put our watchdog roles on hold.

I’ve long been an advocate for newspapers filing complaints when reporters encounter outright abuse or even suspected ignorance about the Open Meeting Law in Massachusetts. It’s a rare day that a private citizen has the time or the energy to file a complaint against a city or town board, so I have always believed newspapers should do this, on behalf of private citizens.

My concern is that the wave of layoffs, buyouts and overall cutbacks we’re seeing at newspapers in New England, my own included, will mean there will be fewer people left who know the importance of enforcing the Open Meeting Law. And even if we’re still here and trying to keep our local officials honest, we’re understaffed and juggling more work than ever. Will it be too much trouble to write the complaint letter, pull together the documents and write the stories that come with filing an OML complaint? That’s my fear, that in the rush just to get our “regular” work done, we’ll leave the really important things – including our important role as watchdogs – until last, or not follow through on them at all.

So prove me wrong, will ya?

Richard Lodge is editor-in-chief of GateHouse Media’s West group, in Framingham, Mass., and editor of the MetroWest Daily News. Email him

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